The rise, fall and resurrection of Red Star Belgrade – and why European competition still means so much to them

When Munas Dabbur converted his spot-kick three minutes into the second half in Salzburg, few were surprised that Red Star were once again set to miss out on the Champions League. Yet in the 65th minute, El Fardou Ben gave the visitors hope. A few seconds later, he sent Crvena Zvezda supporters wild – on UEFA’s highlight reel, the roar is nearly as loud as that produced by the home fans. Amazingly enough, Red Star held on for a 2-2 draw, and the away goals rule sent them to the Champions League group stage for the first time in their history. The visitors swarmed the pitch. Back in Belgrade, fireworks went off in seemingly every corner of the city. In that moment, the fans were unable to feel anything beyond unabashed joy. The rest of the world, upon hearing the news, reacted with utter astonishment.

The surprise was eerily reminiscent of the mystification heard throughout Europe when Zvezda embarked on their 1990/91 European Cup run. The club may have regularly appeared in European competition, but few thought they could ever capture the trophy. That’s exactly what they did, though, as a well-assembled squad stunned the continent by claiming its most coveted prize.

In 1986 Zvezda began snapping up the best talent in Yugoslavia, including 21-year-old Dragan Stojković. A concrete plan was developed the following year, with one objective: to win the European Cup. To that end, Zvezda took a chance on Robert Prosinečki, whom Dinamo Zagreb deemed surplus to requirements. Within weeks Žuti was starting alongside Piksi in midfield (a pairing far more effective than the adorable nicknames suggest); he then won the Golden Ball as a member of Yugoslavia’s Youth World Cup-winning squad just months after Dinamo allowed Zvezda to woo him away.

The fans, already a passionate bunch, quickly became intensely invested in this European project. Prior to the 1987 tie against Real Madrid, long-time supporter Mirko Stojković recalls a man walking outside the Marakana, dangling his keys. No one took him up on his offer to exchange his car for a ticket. But despite beating Real Madrid 4-2 it was the Spaniards who progressed; Red Star needed more to advance beyond the semi-finals. The legend goes that the club began to “kidnap” players from rivals Partizan, sneaking in at the last moment to steal away players that had all but signed for the black-and-whites.

It’s rumoured that Dejan Savićević, another piece of the midfield puzzle, was called up for military duty shortly after signing for Zvezda because he turned his back on Partizan. Zvezda pulled the necessary strings to have the 21-year-old available for European matches during the 1988/89 season and Savićević had Red Star up 1-0 against Milan. The tie was voided due to intense fog; in the replay the next day he missed his penalty against the side who would eventually buy him.

Red Star finished the 1988/89 season in second place, which saw them drop down to the UEFA Cup. The hierarchy then doubled-down on their plan, bringing in Ljupko Petrović (with his extensive experience playing indoor soccer in the United States, in addition to the title he’d won at Vojvodina the season before) as manager. Vladimir Jugović was brought back from his season on loan with FK Rad, and in what may have seemed a strange move, Red Star sold Stojković, leader of the midfield, to Marseille, allowing Prosinečki more room to grow. Finally, Petrović lured Siniša Mihajlović from Vojvodina, completing a rather terrifying midfield.

In the 1980s, when Zvezda initiated their plan to dominate Europe, the club had at least been a fairly regular presence on the continent. They’d lost to Borussia Mönchengladbach in the 1979 UEFA Cup final, were knocked out by Inter in the quarter-finals of the European Cup in 1981, and faced Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1982. Yet prior to the 2017/18 Europa League, Red Star hadn’t made a group stage appearance in European competition for 10 years – and back then they failed to pick up even a point in the UEFA Cup, although scoring twice against Bayern Munich helped keep their goal difference out of the double digits.

Last season, Red Star were drawn into Europa League Group H with Arsenal, BATE Borisov, and Köln. The German side remains a nemesis to those who can (and even those who can’t) remember the 1989/90 UEFA Cup, where a last-minute goal from Frank Ordenewitz ensured Zvezda wouldn’t advance to the quarter-finals. The real ire is reserved for the referee, as many believe none of Köln’s three goals should have counted.

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“I lived in Prague for a year in the 1990s, and the first thing I decided I want to do was find Jozef Marko [the referee for that match] in the phonebook and tell him what I think about him,” Stojković says. “There were four people with the same name, and I never went further than that, but that definitely still hurts.”

For those who think a nearly 30-year-old grudge would have little bearing on a match played today, remember that in Serbia’s collective memory, the 1389 Battle of Kosovo writs large and draws the cartographer’s lines. Thirty years was therefore nothing to those at the Marakana. When Köln came to town, the Red Star fans welcomed them with a banner depicting a scene from a famous Serbian movie, featuring a man holding a goat by the horns; a banner with a popular Serbian curse was unfurled shortly after.

Zvezda won that night. They also beat Köln away, and held Arsenal to a draw in London. Add in two draws with BATE and it was enough to send them to the round of 32, where a single goal from CSKA in Moscow ended their dreams. The two legs against CSKA made it clear to most fans that Zvezda were the lesser side; not only was more European experience needed, but so too was an administration willing to buy the players who could carry them closer to a trophy.

It might seem obvious that a club seeking a return to its days of glory would need to invest in players able to help them get there, but some in Serbian football have long placed personal gratification over group progress. Both Red Star and Partizan are nationally owned; the favours bestowed upon each club fluctuate according to the party holding power. But when Yugoslavia crumbled – and when sanctions prevented Serbian clubs from playing in Europe for three years – there was little reason for individuals to look beyond the end of their own noses. As Goran Lojančić, another long-time fan, notes, “Since the country itself was basically in the arms of criminals, clubs ended up in the arms of scum, and that was pretty much the end of any ambition, except the one to make some money.”

Although many fans anticipated the club would strengthen in anticipation of a deeper European run, a first it seemed Zvezda would instead return to their old model, selling off players without a care beyond whose pockets might be lined. Richmond Boakye went to China for €5.5 million. Sparta Prague bought Guélor Kanga, a midfielder with nine goals in 39 appearances. Captain Mitchell Donald refused a new contract and left for Turkey. Nemanja Radonjić, who scored in extra time against Spartak Trnava to ensure Red Star would at least go into the Europa League group stage, was even sold to Marseille a day after arriving from Roma.

Yet unlike in recent years, Red Star didn’t fiddle away the proceeds of these sales. In January, El Fardou Ben was bought from Olympiacos for around €500,000, although his contract is worth double that – not much in the grand scheme of European football, perhaps, but significant in Serbia. He scored eight goals in 14 appearances last season, and six in Champions League qualifying, including the two against Red Bull to put Red Star through.

To shore up the side, former Serbian Under-21 players Nikola Stojiljković, Veljko Simić, and Dejan Meleg were acquired, demonstrating that the club was prepared to engage in a little squad rotation, allowing its better players to rest against the lesser domestic sides. On the last day of the summer transfer window, Boakye returned for just €2.5 million. And on that same day, Zvezda’s marquee signing, Marko Marin, was unveiled.

In their prime, Red Star were able to lure some of the best young players from competing clubs. Those days are long gone. This summer, as Juventus signed Ronaldo for over €110 million and Kepa Arrizabalaga went to Chelsea for a jaw-dropping €80 million, Zvezda spent around €8.5 million on transfer fees. No, that number isn’t missing an additional zero. The rules of Europe have changed so drastically that not only are Zvezda unable to compete for the best players, they’re unable to even make money off their best. Sales to the likes of Milan and Real Madrid are relegated to the dusty history books. Yet the moves the club made this summer – including holding on to the man who makes everything tick, midfielder Nenad Krstičić – proved remarkably intelligent.

Had Red Star fallen to Red Bull and dropped into the Europa League, the majority of fans would have been perfectly happy seeing what the side could have done on Thursday nights. Those who watched the final qualifier against Salzburg may have drawn parallels with the 1991 European Cup final. The draw with Red Bull was drab, dreary, discordant – an utter departure from how Zvezda had been playing domestically. Against the likes of Čukarički and Spartak Subotica, the Serbian champions showed off their attacking flair; after the match in Salzburg they beat Vojvodina 4-1 away. In the league, Red Star were playing like they’d already won the trophy, but Europe demanded discipline. Vladan Milojević demonstrated that his side could remain focused, even while those watching found it difficult to do the same.

Bari in 1991 was even worse. Considered by many to be one of the worst- if not the worst – final in European history, Marseille and Red Star managed to play out 120 minutes in which barely anything happened. This felt like a slap in the face for neutrals who’d tuned in after watching Red Star, 2-1 down to Bayern Munich, apply such attacking pressure that Klaus Aughentaler scored an own goal, levelling the match at 2-2 and giving Zvezda a 4-3 win on aggregate.

“That last minute goal, I swear it was like telekinesis or something,” says Stojković. “The sheer will of the people at the stadium made it go in, I have no other explanation. It’s like they say in the movies: it took hours for the ball to go in, that’s how it felt. I think I managed to say ‘ajde’ (‘come on’) like six times, that’s how long it was in the air.”

The Zvezda fans celebrated clinching the final with a pitch invasion, one which that resulted in torn nets and dug-out divots of grass. Stojković also remembers that the goal was reconstructed: fans had placed it in the middle of Slavija Square, one of the largest in Belgrade, and were taking it in turns to walk through the posts. But what those outside of Belgrade most remember about the hometown supporters was how they greeted Bayern, with a literal ring of fire accompanied by deafening shouts. After years of disappointment – the questionable goals that allowed Koln to win, the crushing loss to Gladbach – the fans seemed to believe the football gods were on their side this time, and their performance, almost as much as the team’s in the semi-final, had neutrals rooting for them to win.

And a win is what Crvena Zvezda delivered; alas, they were then destined to be remembered as the plucky club who dug out a victory on penalties in a match that had many snoozing long before the final whistle. Perhaps the club, administrators and players alike, knew it was now or never.

“1991 was quite literally the last chance,” Stojković admits. “It was not going to be another one. We didn’t know what would happen… but we all saw something, a cloud, a fog, if you will, like the one that saved Milan.”

Slovenia would declare its independence on 25 June 1991, less than a month after Red Star lifted the trophy. But even during the campaign, war was descending; armed conflicts broke out in Croatia in March. Although Serbia and Montenegro assumed the mantle of “Yugoslavia,” the reality is the country no longer existed. Red Star tried to defend their title by playing their home games in Hungary and Bulgaria. Then, Serbian clubs were banned from European competition in 1992/93, 1993/94 and 1994/95. While domestic football continued, many fans unfortunately felt the draw of paramilitary groups fighting in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

When the dust began to settle in 1995, the Bosman ruling was in place and the gap between rich and poor began to widen. The new Yugoslavia’s economy had been ravaged by sanctions; their actions in Kosovo would cause the economy and infrastructure to crumble even further. Red Star seemed to crumble alongside the country.

Their best players were sold after 1992, and without European football, there was no means to invest in others. While Partizan was building a modern youth academy – with assistance from their former president, also, conveniently, the country’s prime minister – Zvezda were adrift, allowing the most talented youth to be snapped up by their biggest rivals. They returned to domestic dominance in 2000, trading championships with Partizan, but failed to make much of an impression in Europe. In that light, it’s not surprising that when Zvezda were drawn into Group D of the 2018/19 Champions League, some fans outside of Serbia were left wondering who this Red Star Belgrade club were.

Those who thought of Red Star at all most likely called to mind one fact: their fans love to play with fire. The blazing ring that encircled the Marakana prior to kick-off against Bayern Munich may have been toned down, but its descendents can be seen at every derby against Partizan, where huge flames engulf the stands.

The flares were absent when Zvezda kicked off their Champions League campaign against Napoli last month. For once, the Crazy North played it cautious; after “unruly behavior” in the stands at Salzburg saw a ban on away fans at PSG and Liverpool, the Delije were reluctant to cross UEFA. It had taken so long to reach the pinnacle of European football that the fervent supporters, once among the most feared on the continent, decided to toe the line.

But that didn’t mean Napoli were greeted with a subdued atmosphere. While at other stadiums, where fans are more accustomed to playing midweek football, the riotous excitement might be contained at one end, it seemed that no one at the Marakana sat down until the final whistle blew. While the San Paolo certainly knows how to make some noise, Napoli seemed rather intimidated by the din which greeted them at the Marakana. The goalless draw would have excited few neutrals, but the thrill it gave Red Star fans can’t be overstated.

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“When I was kid, I watched a lot of teams in Belgrade, and some were better,” Stojković says. “But none were this much better. This was like an old Yugo racing a Porsche. We showed heart and with luck, got the point, and I was so happy.”

Aleksandar Adašević, another fan who was at that first Champions League game, agrees. “We didn’t expect much, but seeing Insigne, Hamsik, Mertens, and how quick they play, how quick they move and pass – it was a joy. Our players clearly aren’t used to this level of pressing from the opponents. It was hard, but somehow we managed to survive and get that point. And we celebrated it, some of us until going to work the next morning.”

Some may presume that the 6-1 loss to PSG crushed Red Star supporters’ spirit. In reality, though, few had expected much. The current squad may be far stronger than in previous years, but they are no match for the likes of Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappé, and Neymar. Despite the heavy defeat, fans at one local Belgrade bar applauded the team when the whistle blew.

What worries fans more are the accusations of match-fixing being levelled at Red Star. For many, corruption at the club feels endemic; hearing that an official is alleged to have done something shady never surprises. But after waiting 26 years to reach the highest echelons of Europe once more, no one wants to believe that a player – regardless of the income discrepancies between the squad and the one they faced – would throw it all away on a bet that PSG would win by at least five goals.

Even without the scent of scandal, few fans believed Red Star would continue to climb. The divide between clubs like Zvezda and PSG seems destined to grow even bigger. And then there’s Serbia itself, a country in which benefits provided to football clubs can disappear when the wind changes direction, where the football association has no shame in meddling in internal affairs, where many want to be on the inside just to skim a bit off the top. In such an environment, a sustained campaign for European glory cannot be sustained. Lojančić put it best.

“It’s hard to expect much when we know where we live – how the country functions, how the football association functions. Sooner or later, those vultures will come knocking again, asking for their part of the spoils, and sooner or later, we will be back where we were.”

The rise, fall and resurrection of Red Star Belgrade – and why European competition still means so much to them
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